As Israeli politicians angrily call CEOs and demand government intervention while social media warriors inundate the Ben and Jerry’s Twitter account and kosher marketplaces eliminate their stock of Vermont-based ice cream, a casual observer would be excused for thinking that the announcement by Ben and Jerry’s that it will no longer be selling its ice cream in–its words–the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a decisive point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that Israel’s existence is endangered. In fact, the Ben and Jerry’s maelstrom will change nothing, will not lead to a corporate tsunami of boycotts, and probably isn’t even primarily about BDS. What the episode has done, however, is reinforced the deeply self-contradictory stance that the Israeli government and much of the pro-Israel community takes with regard to Israel’s presence in the West Bank, and raises questions that go well beyond whether or not Chubby Hubby will be sold in Efrat supermarkets about the long-term sustainability of this approach.
Let’s get the boilerplate out of the way early, since the first question is always whether someone supports this move or not. I don’t support boycotts of Israelis, irrespective of where they live, and don’t personally boycott settlements, so were I advising Ben and Jerry’s, I would have counseled against this move. For anyone who wants to follow my lead, you won’t find Ben and Jerry’s in my freezer or on my list of regularly visited ice cream stores, but that has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or boycotting boycotters; it is entirely because loading up ice cream with pretzels, potato chips, moonrock-sized pieces of brownies and cookies, and other distractions is generally your best sign of mediocre and underwhelming ice cream.
Even if I did support boycotts, this one seems particularly muddled in its conception and execution. Will Ben and Jerry’s not be sold anywhere in the West Bank, or not sold only in settlements? How about in supermarkets, such as Rami Levy, that are well known to be used by both Israelis and Palestinians? If the idea is to not support settlements economically, why is Ben and Jerry’s focused on the location of the consumers of their product rather than on where it is manufactured? Are those who favor a settlement-only boycott genuinely comfortable with a policy of denying basic staples, such as food (and obviously ice cream is an unnecessary luxury but the larger point stands), to people because of where they live? There aren’t answers to these questions since all we have is a vague corporate statement, but it suggests a company with a track record of interest in social causes that was under immense pressure from activists and responded with corporate virtue signaling. Naturally, that virtue signaling has been met with its own virtue signaling, such as Israeli ministers filming themselves throwing out ice cream, kosher grocery stores in the U.S. proudly announcing that they no longer carry Ben and Jerry’s, and Sydney, Australia’s Kashrut Authority actually delisting Ben and Jerry’s ice cream as a kosher product despite the kosher certification symbol still being on the container. Israel is not going to sign an agreement to withdraw from most of the West Bank because you can’t find Cherry Garcia in Mitzpe Yericho, and Unilever–the company that owns Ben and Jerry’s, and more about them in a moment–is not going to even notice that a handful of kosher stores in Queens and Long Island are no longer stocking the dozen pints of Ben and Jerry’s that they used to carry. The amount of outrage devoted to this on all sides is wildly divorced from any actual impact.
What makes this even more built for the social media virtue signaling age is that it’s also not clear that any of this is actually about the West Bank. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in Israel is manufactured and distributed by a separate local licensee under the Ben and Jerry’s name, and since the licensee refuses to stop selling the ice cream in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Ben and Jerry’s is not going to renew the license when it expires in 2022. But Ben and Jerry’s is owned by Unilever, which also owns Israeli ice cream giant Strauss, and thus in using the Israeli licensee for Ben and Jerry’s–which Strauss inherited when it bought Ben and Jerry’s in 2000–Unilever is costing itself money by receiving a licensing fee from a Strauss competitor to produce ice cream. Once the contract has expired with the Israeli Ben and Jerry’s licensee, Unilever can either take its time in finding a new licensee and watch Strauss capture even more market share while Ben and Jerry’s is off Israeli shelves completely, or it can cut out the middleman and export Ben and Jerry’s to Israel directly. In other words, eliminating the current Israeli manufacturer and distributor probably is a good business decision for Unilever, and getting the independent Ben and Jerry’s board to take that step in the name of Palestinian solidarity may be a convenient path for Unilever to end an arrangement that it doesn’t like solely because of its profit margins. For all of the commentary about what this means for BDS, this may not even actually be a BDS story.
There are some aspects of this, however, that are more worthy of commentary. Even though I do not support Ben and Jerry’s removing their products from Israeli freezer shelves beyond the Green Line, the responding accusations of antisemitism are unfounded and over the top. Something can be objectionable without being antisemitic, and nearly everyone who is outraged about Ben and Jerry’s seems to be unaware of this distinction. Ben and Jerry’s explicitly did not pull out of Israel, but limited its decision to selling its ice cream inside Israel’s internationally recognized territory, and it did not announce a boycott of all Israelis because of Israeli activities over the Green Line. It is the very definition of tying a decision not to Jewish status or even Israeli status, but to specific Israeli activity in a specific location, and to limiting the consequences of that decision to that specific location. Is it now antisemitic, for instance, that the U.S. has no diplomatic presence in the West Bank and remains inside the Green Line? Was it antisemitic of the Israeli government in 2014 to sign an agreement with the EU to participate in the Horizon 2020 research program despite the guidelines explicitly prohibiting funding for projects beyond the Green Line? People can find all of these decisions objectionable, but that does not make them antisemitic. If it is antisemitic to continue selling ice cream to Jews and to Israelis in Israel but not in territory that Israel itself defines as disputed, then the term really has no meaningful ability to distinguish between categories of behavior that are about hating Jews as Jews and categories of behavior that impact Jews for other reasons. We are now in Uncle Leo territory, where “they don’t just overcook a hamburger.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of this story is that the reactions to Ben and Jerry’s undermine Israel’s long-term standing far more than anything that Ben and Jerry’s has done, and it’s not particularly difficult to see how. The answer to why Palestinians who live in the West Bank are not entitled to Israeli citizenship is that it is not because of who they are, but where they live. When human rights organizations or U.S. politicians accuse Israel of apartheid, the counter is that Israeli policies inside the Green Line are different than Israeli policies beyond the Green Line, and thus erasing the Green Line and treating all of the territory that Israel controls as the same is an error. When people who are viewed as anti-Israel do this, Israel and the pro-Israel community declare that they are anti-Zionist and even antisemitic. Yet Ben and Jerry’s just did the same thing that Israel itself does, and even employed the exact same argument that Israel wields to fend off charges of apartheid-that there is a distinction between official Israeli territory inside the Green Line and disputed Israeli territory beyond the Green Line, and thus treating the territory and the people who live on it in different ways makes sense as a matter of policy. The Green Line either exists as a marker for where some rules and categories of treatment apply, or it doesn’t. It is not credible to argue that the Green Line should exist when it is convenient and that it should be erased when it is convenient, and that it is outrageously anti-Israel, antisemitic, or even a form of terrorism to maintain the same distinction that Israel itself makes in all manner of ways.
At the risk of being a broken record for having made this point so many times before, Israel benefits from a world in which people recognize the truth that things are not black and white and that there are distinctions between the State of Israel and the Land of Israel. If the Israeli government and the pro-Israel community insist on erasing those distinctions when it is inconvenient to have them and forcing people into an all-or-nothing posture, they may succeed in winning some short-term battles but they will lose the long-term war. For a new Israeli government that has prioritized rebuilding bridges with Democrats and American Jews, nothing good will come out of calling a settlement-only boycott antisemitic, demanding enforcement of state anti-BDS laws, and doing everything possible to erase all distinctions between sovereign Israeli territory and non-sovereign Israeli-controlled territory. None of this is meant to imply that Israel should embrace boycotts of its citizens or refrain from registering its displeasure, but the nuclear approach will create a fallout that will eventually envelop Israel in a way that causes problems beyond the freezer case aisle.